Letters to a young X

Carl Czerny, Letters to a Young Lady on the Art of Playing the Pianoforte (1840)

Alan Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer (2001)

Todd Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist (2003)

Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)

Mario Vargas Llosa, Letters to a Young Novelist (1997)

Jonathan Kozol, Letters to a Young Teacher (2007)

Thomas de Quincey, Letters to a Young Man (1854)

Susan Ridout, Letters to a Young Governess (1840)

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1929)

Robert Selzer, Letters to a Young Doctor (1982)

Dinesh D’Souza, Letters to a Young Conservative (2002)

Ian Stewart, Letters to a Young Mathematician (2006)

E. O. Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist (2013)

Virginia Woolf, “A Letter to a Young Poet” (1932)

Freedom from force and falsity

Chekhov at twenty-eight, to Alexei Plescheyev, October 4, 1888, translated by Sidonie K. Lederer, in The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, edited by Lillian Hellman:

Those I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendencies between the lines and want to put me down definitely as a liberal or conservative. I am not a liberal and not a conservative, not an evolutionist, nor a monk, nor indifferent to the world. I would like to be a free artist—that is all—and regret that God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and coercion in all their aspects. . . . Pharisaism, stupidity and idle whim reign not only in the homes of the merchant class and within prison walls; I see them in science, in literature, amongst young people. I cannot therefore nurture any particularly warm feelings toward policemen, butchers, savants, writers, or youth. I consider trademarks or labels to be prejudices.

My holy of holies are the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from force and falsity, in whatever form these last may be expressed. This is the program I would maintain, were I a great artist.

Attacking too loudly here, worshipping too loudly there

from Lillian Hellman’s introduction to The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1955:

When I was young we used to play a game called what-famous-writer-would-you-most-like-to-have-dinner-with? and a lot of our choices seem surprising to me now, though we stuck pretty close to serious writers as a rule and had sense enough to limit our visiting time to the dinner table. Maybe we knew even then that writers are often difficult people and a Tolstoy—on too big a scale—might become tiresome, and a Dickens unpleasant, and a Stendhal—with his nervous posturing—hard to stand, and a Proust too special, and a Dostoevski too complex. You can argue that greatness and simplicity often go hand in hand, but simple people can be difficult too and by and large the quality of a man’s work seems to have little to do with the pleasure of his company. There are exceptions to this—thank God—and Anton Chekhov seems to have been one of them. […]

Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness nor self righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn’t hurt too much if it’s done with affection. He was neurotic, but unlike most neurotic men he had few crotchets and no nuisance irritabilities, nor pride, nor side, nor aimless vanity, was unlikely to mistake scorched potatoes for high tragedy, didn’t boast, had fine manners and was generous and gay. It is true that he complained a lot about his ailments and his lack of money, but if you laughed at him he would have laughed with you. Such a nature is rare at all times, but it is particularly remarkable in a period when maudlin soul-searching was the intellectual fashion. Chekhov lived in that time that gave us our comic-strip picture of the Russian. While many of his contemporaries were jabbering out the dark days and boozing away the white nights, turning revolutionary for Christmas and police spy for Easter, attacking too loudly here and worshipping too loudly there, wasting youth and talent in futile revolt against anything and everything with little thought and no selection, Anton Chekhov was a man of balance, a man of sense.


You are not helpful!

I think that your fault in a discussion is this: YOU ARE NOT HELPFUL! I am like a man inviting you to tea in my room, but my room is hardly furnished; one has to sit on boxes, and the teacups stand on the floor, and the cups have no handles, etc., etc. I hustle about fetching anything I can think of to make it possible that we should have tea together. You stand there with a sulky face, say that you can’t sit down on a box and can’t hold a cup without a handle, and generally make things difficult. At least that’s how it seems to me.

—Wittgenstein to Sraffa, January 1, 1934

I have heard of Krakens

Melville to Hawthorne, November 1851:

Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; — I have heard of Krakens.

A drawing by British naturalist William Evans Hoyle, 1886: